Children’s Rights Challenges Tennessee Law Unconstitutionally Interfering with Children’s Juvenile Court Hearings

NASHVILLE, TN — Challenging the constitutionality of a new Tennessee law aimed at pressuring local judges to reduce the number of children they commit to foster care — and asserting that the law endangers the safety of abused and neglected kids — the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights today asked a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the law’s implementation.

The law, which was proposed by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS), passed as an amendment to the omnibus budget bill that took effect in July. It establishes fiscal penalties for counties whose judges commit more than a prescribed number of children to state custody (300 percent of the state average commitment rate) — and fails to take into account the local circumstances influencing foster care placements in each county and the unique facts of each child’s case.

In a motion (PDF) filed today with the U.S. District Court in Nashville, lawyers at Children’s Rights and their co-counsel in Tennessee asserted that the clear intent of the law was to save state funds by influencing judges’ commitment decisions with the threat of fiscal penalties to their counties. At hearings about the legislation, DCSofficials have stated publicly that the goal was never to collect money from the counties, but to reduce the number of children placed in foster care.

“This law is unconstitutional and very dangerous to children who have already suffered abuse or neglect,” said Children’s Rights Associate Director Ira Lustbader. “These children have the right to have their cases heard by judges who will decide how best to keep them safe based only on the facts of their individual cases, not whether their counties are in danger of getting fined for exceeding an arbitrary limit on foster care commitments.”

Before the law was passed, the executive committee of the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges unanimously passed a resolution opposing it, and, after it was enacted, “expressed great concern about the Legislative Branch telling the Judicial Branch how many kids they can or cannot commit to state custody.”

The new law violates the 2001 settlement of a federal class action brought by Children’s Rights and co-counsel to reform the Tennessee child welfare system, which requires that judges make safety decisions based on the facts before them and that children’s constitutional rights are protected at all hearings in juvenile courts. Furthermore, say attorneys, the law violates children’s constitutional rights to due process and equal protection by preventing those who live in counties with high foster care placement rates from receiving fair hearings.

“The express purpose of this law is to make judges think about the number of commitments in their counties each time they decide whether to place a child in state custody,” said David L. Raybin, an attorney with Hollins, Wagster, Weatherly & Raybin in Nashville serving as co-counsel on the case. “If you’re a child facing abuse or neglect at home, and you happen to live in a county where foster care placements are running high, this law ensures that you’ll be treated differently than you would if your county’s placements were low. That’s a clear violation of children’s constitutional rights.”

Today’s challenge to the new law notes that Anderson County, an undisputed target of the law, leads the state in both the number of methamphetamine lab seizures and the number of children committed to state custody due to parental substance abuse. In measuring individual counties’ foster care placements against a statewide average without considering such unique local circumstances, the law “is completely disconnected from these realities,” the motion says.

Additionally, lawyers at Children’s Rights assert that the state has other, lawful means of reducing foster care placements, including appealing individual judges’ decisions it believes to be unfounded and, most important, increasing family preservation services where necessary to keep vulnerable families together.

“Tennessee could achieve its goal of minimizing foster care commitments by enhancing the support and services it provides to help families stay together, which would be absolutely the right thing to do,” Lustbader said. “Instead, this law seeks to influence judges’ decisions in individual children’s cases, which is unfair and dangerous.”

Children’s Rights and a team of Tennessee attorneys have represented all children in Tennessee foster care since 2000, when they filed a class action against the state seeking the comprehensive reform of the state-run child welfare system. Agreements negotiated by attorneys at Children’s Rights to settle the case established court-enforceable reform plans that have produced major improvements — including increases in the number of children moved out of foster care and into permanent homes and reductions in the number of foster children housed in institutions, separated from their siblings, and placed in foster homes far away from their own communities.

Today’s motion — and a complete archive of documents related to Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Tennessee child welfare — can be found at www.childrensrights.org/tennessee.

Related Press

Child advocacy group wants Tennessee’s new foster-care law blocked (Tennessean, Sept. 10, 2009)

Advocates Ask Judge To Block Limits On Foster Care (AP, via NewsChannel 5 Nashville)